Polar bear populations are distributed across the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States). It is estimated that the total population is 20,000 to 25,000 bears. The species is not evenly distributed throughout the Arctic. There are 19 relatively discrete populations, of which 14 are in Canada or are shared with Canada and other countries. Approximately two-thirds of the total polar bear population lives in Canada.

There are numerous threats facing polar bears and their habitat including climate change, oil and gas development, over-harvesting, and tourism. The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and as polar bears are totally reliant on sea ice as their primary habitat, climate change will continue to have adverse effects on the species. As apex predators in the Arctic marine ecosystem, polar bears are exposed to high levels of persistent organic pollutants that accumulate and magnify with each step up the food chain. The level of pollutants in polar bear tissue can negatively affect the immune system, hormone regulation, reproduction, and overall survival rates. Oil and gas development poses a number of threats to polar bears from oil spills to increased human-bear interactions, noise and increased ship traffic. Currently only Canada allows commercial (sport) hunting, although Greenland is considering allowing it as a means of attracting tourism. While most of the 19 populations are well managed, there is ongoing concern for polar bear populations in areas where there is no information on population size.

In the United States, polar bears are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The MMPA establishes a general moratorium on the “taking” of polar bears, although special exceptions allow Alaska Natives to continue traditional harvest practices for subsistence purposes so long as such harvest does not threaten species health. Only small-scale Native handicrafts are allowed for sale under the MMPA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency responsible for managing U.S. polar bear populations under the MMPA.

On May 15, 2008, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service announced a final rule listing the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The listing is based on the best available science, which shows that loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat. This loss of habitat puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future, the standard established by the ESA for designating a threatened species.

There are several international agreements regarding polar bears to which the U.S. is a party. On November 15, 1973, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the former Soviet Union concluded an Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. The U.S. ratified the agreement on November 1, 1976. The Agreement prohibits the hunting, killing or capturing of polar bears subject to specific exceptions for indigenous subsistence needs. It also calls for cooperation and consultation among the countries on research involving conservation and management of polar bear populations. Implementing legislation was not necessary as the MMPA’s authorities exceed the Agreement’s requirements.

The United States and the Russian Federation, on October 16, 2000, concluded an Agreement on the Conservation and Management of the Alaska-Chukotka Polar Bear Population. The Agreement contains provisions that limit the taking of polar bears in the shared population of Alaska and the Chukotka autonomous region of Russia, and ensures that any adverse taking does not adversely affect the population. The President signed the implementing legislation on January 12, 2007. The Agreement also establishes a bilateral commission to coordinate conservation efforts and research involving the Alaska-Chukotka population. The first meeting of the bilateral commission will take place in 2009.

In May 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding between Environment Canada and the United States Department of the Interior for the Conservation and Management of Shared Polar Bear Populations was signed. The purpose of the Memorandum is to facilitate and enhance coordination, cooperation and the development of partnerships between the signatories regarding the conservation and management of polar bears. It also calls for a framework for the development and implementations of short, medium, and long-term actions that focus on specific components of polar bear conservation.

Related Links:
Convention on Biological Diversity: http://www.cbd.int/
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna: http://www.cites.org/
IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group: http://pbsg.npolar.no/
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/home/feature/2008/polarbear012308/polarbearspromo.html

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